Real Estate

Overcoming fear of composting

Class teaches how to make fungus, bacteria and bugs enhance the garden

At 10 a.m. on Saturday, April 25, about 45 people gathered in room H-1 of the Cubberley Community Center to get their hands dirty. The question at hand was: Does the compost smell bad or does it just smell? An important distinction for those unfamiliar with the smell of successful compost.

The composting basics class occurs once a month and is organized through the Santa Clara County's partnership with University of California Cooperative Extension. The UCCE is a network of 64 Cooperative Extension offices across California, which work to create a collaborative link between local issues and UC research. In Santa Clara County some of the cooperative programs include Master Gardeners, Nutrition Family Consumer Sciences and the Small Farm Program.

The composting class, which is free and requires pre-registration online or via phone, is two hours and lays out the basics of composting, how composting can save water and how it reduces methane emissions; this last workshop also included an introduction to worm composting. Any Palo Alto resident who attends one of the composting workshops is eligible to get a free composting bin from the city.

"So what is compost? To me compost is a community, it's an ecosystem," Cole Smith, the composting education program coordinator, explained to the audience with a table in front of him covered in composting materials such as leaves, egg shells and orange peels.

"I see the compost pile as an incubator, just like you're incubating chicken eggs, but what you're incubating is fungus, bacteria and bugs," Smith said.

Fungus, bacteria and invertebrates consume and break down the composing materials, such as fruit and vegetable scraps, turning them into a nutrient-rich soil amendment referred to as humus. The water-saving benefits of compost come from the nutrient-rich material's capacity to improve soil texture and structure; this enhances the soil's capacity to retain moisture thereby decreasing water runoff, he said.

This is a benefit of using compost, but compost can be bought, so why make it? Composting at home reduces methane emissions from landfills.

"Americans throw, as you can see, almost 40 million tons of food waste away every year," said Smith, pointing to a PowerPoint slide titled "The Anatomy of America's Garbage."

He went on to explain the path of food waste from the garbage can to the landfill. The bad smell that comes hand-in-hand with landfills is caused by anaerobic bacteria -- bacteria that thrives without oxygen, and most importantly, produces methane. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, methane is the second most prevalent greenhouse gas in the U.S. that is emitted by human activities.

"Food-waste management is just under 30 percent of all the methane emissions," Smith said, citing a study done by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, "so this is a big issue."

When composting is successful, it produces an oxygen-rich environment in which methane-producing bacteria cannot thrive; therefore composting at home reduces the methane emissions. The aerated environment is created through a layering of "browns" -- dry, woody materials like dry leaves -- and "greens" -- moist, green materials like fruit peelings. The layering aims to balance the air and moisture of the compost pile: Moisture is essential for the composting to happen, and air keeps the pile from going anaerobic.

The class expands on all the details of maintaining this balance, options for how and where to store the composting pile, what to compost and what not to compost, how to tell when the compost is done and finally a quick explanation of the more compact option of worm composting. After the presentations were finished the audience broke up in two groups to either ask questions about composting basics or learn more about worm composting. Attendees lingered after to ask questions.

Maija McDonald, a long-time Palo Alto resident, did the worm-composting presentation at the end of Smith's discussion on composting basics. McDonald has been volunteering with the composting education program since the mid-1990s and during that time she received her master composter certification through the Master Composter Training program.

"I would just like to inspire people to do it and to show how easy it is," McDonald said.

What: City of Palo Alto compost workshops

When: Saturday, June 6, July 25, Aug. 15, Sept. 5, Oct. 24, 10 a.m. to noon

Where: Cubberley Community Center, Room H-1, 4000 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto; Palo Alto Demonstration Garden on Sept. 5

Info: Compost workshops or 408-918-4640

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